21 January 2012
It’s a pleasant, cool morning on the Shingwedzi when day breaks. Still no sign of the missing Landcruiser and crew with the supplies, however. What could have happened to them? Most likely they arrived at the Limpopo too late to catch the ferrymen, and then had to camp on the far bank for the night. If that’s the case, they should arrive here by 10 a.m. If they don’t, we’ll mount a search, we decide.
Ten o’ clock comes and goes. At 10.30 four of us lift off in the chopper to search for them, starting with the road to Mapai. We fly low, following the two wheelruts that snake through the trees below us, all eyes alert for a vehicle or a messenger on foot. On all sides the virgin bush of the almost flat plains of Mozambique stretches away to a hazy horizon. This is big, empty country; it looks almost hostile from the air.
Sixty km later we haven’t spotted even a vehicle spoor on the red, rainswept sand of the track. Animals yes, but nothing human other than the meandering trail and the rusty remnants of an old car wreck.
As we drop down into the valley of Kipling’s great grey-green, greasy Limpopo we pass over huts and cornfield shambas where goats, cattle and chickens scatter and children run to catch a better glimpse of the machine. Our shadow chases us across a rough floodplain, then there are the sands that line the great artery, four boats drawn up on the west bank and.. there! The Landcruiser!
The dragonfly sends up a sandstorm as it settles on the beach. The four guys below are happy to see us, but they’re somewhat shaken.
They’d reached the river at 6pm the previous evening and signalled across the 150m wide stream for the ferry to come and fetch them. Three men duly poled the pontoon across and assured them the load was no problem. Off they went, until, in the middle of the stream, the craft began to rock. It listed one way, then the other, and then suddenly capsized and dumped the whole lot in the river!
As it went over everyone leapt into the water, except the driver who was caught in the cab. Fortunately the river was only over a meter deep and the vehicle came to rest on its side, entangled in the railings of the upended boat.
Adrenaline overruled any fear of crocodiles for a while and there was a mad scramble to recover floating pillows, cooler boxes and the like, and to dive for all that had spilt and gone down. The current took its share, but somehow the guys managed to wade ashore with most of what had been lost. To add to their woes they then had to fend off some locals who started looting the pile!
In darkness by now, they set about extricating the truck. It meant having to saw through the metal railings underwater, but they somehow rolled the vehicle on its wheels again and, thanks to it being a diesel equipped with a snorkel, even drove it out!
Close to three in the morning, with wet clothes on their bodies, they finally curled up in the sand around a fire to get some rest.
Daylight revealed the full extent of the damage. GPS, iPod, two-way radio, cellphones, documents, even a R20 000 satellite phone: all had gone under, some of it for hours. The Cruiser’s left side was dinged from front to back, the headlight was full of water, personal gear was soaked, keys were lost. All the new linen for my camp, the table cloths, pillows, lamps, shelves and even toilet seats lay wet and muddy in a heap next to two drums of helicopter fuel and cases of sodden food.
At five the weary crew rose to complete their mission. They started the vehicle, moved it closer and set about loading the whole lot again. Then, when they were finally ready to roll, the engine wouldn’t start again. And so it remained: Dead.
It’s a tired and dejected lot we find on the hot sands of the Limpopo, but we can do little more than try to bolster their morale. Despite our efforts with the contents of the toolbox, the diesel pump of the big V8 just won’t deliver. Everything is taken off the truck again so that we can get to the drums to refuel the chopper, then we load some essentials, reassure the shipwrecked crew that help will be coming tomorrow, and fly back to camp.